The small town of Oldham is in the north-west of England. It is part of Greater Manchester, and is home to one of the oldest Bangladeshi communities in Britain. Many of the migrants who came to Burnley, like Mohammed Shamuz Miah, moved there to work in the local textile industry. The industry had grown up in the nineteenth century and Oldham was once the most productive cotton spinning mill town in the world. However, the cotton industry began to lose money in the 1970s and the last mill closed in 1998.
The 2001 Census figures suggest that Bangladeshis are the third largest ethnic group in Oldham. They make up 4.5% of the population (about 9,900 people). It's thought that this will rise to over 10% (22,800 people) by 2021. The largest ethnic group is White British, and they make up 84.4% of the population. Oldham also has a large Pakistani population - 6.3%. Although Bangladeshis can be found in each of Oldham's 20 electoral wards, nearly half (49%) live in Coldhurst ward, with 11.9% in Werneth, 6.2% in Alexandra and 6% in St Mary's Ward. Werneth, Alexandra and St Mary's wards also have large Pakistani populations. In Coldhurst, most Bangladeshis live in the Westwood, Glodwick and Coppice areas. There was a lot of publicity about Glodwick in 2001 after the 'riots' in May.
Bangladeshi migrants began to arrive in Oldham in large numbers in the 1960s and started to bring their families in the 1970s and 1980s. They settled close to each other for housing and shopping and to protect themselves from attacks by the National Front (a Far Right racist political organisation that wanted all immigrants to leave Britain). The area they settled in was made up of six streets in Westwood. It became known as 'Bangla Para', and the area had a mosque and a community centre as well as shops selling Asian clothes and foods. The population of Bangla Para is 99% Bengali. Most of the Bengali families in Oldham come from two main regions of Sylhet – Biswanath and Nabiganj, and these regions have the biggest influence on local politics and community organisations.
The Bengali community in Oldham has always been very active, first as part of the Pakistan Welfare Association and, after Independence, the Bangladesh Welfare Association. The 1970s and 1980s saw the beginning of the Bangladesh Youth Association and Bangladesh Women's Association. They built Britain's first permanent Shahid Minar in 1997 and the Shapla Roundabout in 2000 (the Shapla flower is the national symbol of Bangladesh).
Haji Tasarul Ali: arriving in Oldham
Haji Tasarul Ali came to Oldham in 1967. He told us:
At that time few Bengalis lived here, only five or six families… The situation was good. There was work. People worked the whole day. They didn't plan to settle here… They never thought of bringing their families here.
As more Bengalis arrived, the sense of community grew:
When there were more Bengalis in this area, we started calling it Bangla Para… We were united. When the families came, people became busy with their own families... But at that time there were no tensions. We would go to each others' houses, eat, stay over.
There was some tension with the white community, who moved away from the areas where Bengalis settled:
No Black people lived in these areas at that time. They were all White. Now the Whites have gone. Once I asked them why they are leaving this place. They replied that the smell of curry spread to their houses through the walls.
Haji Mizanur Rahman: staying in Oldham
Haji Mizanur Rahman arrived in Oldham in 1965 to work in a local factory.
I lived in Oldham. My factory was in a different town. It took half an hour on the bus. It was a place for factories, not for living. Very few people lived over there. I was also afraid of the racists. We would be attacked at any time. There were other limitations too… We had to come to Oldham to buy halal food.
Mohammed Aziz: creating community in Oldham
Mohammed Aziz arrived in Britain in 1961 and after living for 12 years in Bradford, he moved to Oldham. He spoke of the growth of the community:
Oldham was a business centre then. There were several textile mills. Many Bangladeshis worked there… At that time, Bengalis would only work and eat. They were mostly single people; they weren’t family centred. Those were good times, we had strong friendships… From '68 to '69 more people came and after Liberation even more started coming. Many people brought their families over after Liberation.
Mohammed Aziz spoke of how the Bengali community had become more established:
Earlier there was only one mosque in Oldham. It was difficult to provide a space for prayer. The society is expanding very fast. Earlier, there were 700 Bengalis in Oldham; now there are 15,000. So we decided to build a mosque in each area. Inshalla we now have 10 mosques in Oldham… We are trying to build a beautiful central mosque in Oldham.
Hasib: changing community in Oldham
In 1970 when our people came to this country they landed in Oldham. Oldham at that time was a mill area, cotton mills. Everyone worked there. 15 people would live in one house… One shift would sleep, when the other shift came home, the first shift would go to work and the others sleep in the same bed. That was how they lived… They would cook in turns. On their one day off, they would all go out. There was a cinema hall; they would go to the cinema. Indian films were shown.
Then the mills began to close…
When the Bengalis saw all the industries were closing down, they thought about what else they could do. Bengalis are expert in new ideas - they found that there is one business that can be profitable and will run forever: the rice business… At that time, there were only two or three types of curry, not much. Now it is one of the biggest industries.
Hasib also spoke of the regional differences within the Bengali community:
Most people are from Nabiganj and Biswanath. There are many people from these two districts. One mosque should be enough but they say, 'Biswanath people come to this mosque, there is no-one from my region. Let's build a mosque for Nabiganj people.' That's how it is.
Kamal Hossain: celebrating Bangladeshi culture and history in Oldham.
Kamal Hossain became involved with the Bangladesh Youth Association in 1990 and led the campaign to set up the Shahid Minar (Tower of the Martyrs). He told us:
Every year we would build a wooden Shahid Minar and then break it up.
In the 1990s they applied for funding to establish a permanent monument:
The Shahid Minar does not take much space. There is no other nation in the world that fought for their language. This was a unique movement. The Shahid Minar was finished at the end of 1996 and in '97 we opened it and presented flowers. Before that, there was no Shahid Minar in any foreign country outside of Bangladesh.
Kamal Hossain told us that the celebrations of the Language Martyrs on 21 February (Ekushe) are a central meeting point for Bengalis from all across the north of England:
People come from Manchester, Hyde, Burnley, Bradford and even Birmingham to place flowers at the Shahid Minar from midnight… When people come, the road in front of the Shahid Minar is blocked. It is a huge gathering. The Shahid Minar is covered with flowers.
Kamal eventually moved away from community politics because of growing divisions between people from different regions:
Like the Bangladesh Association, the Council elections are dominated by regionalism - people from Nabiganj will vote for their candidate; Bishwanath people vote for their candidate. The candidate with the most people from his region will win the election. Candidates from another region won't win.
In May 2001, the Glodwick area of Oldham was the scene of one of a series of 'riots' across the northern former mill towns of England. There had been unrest in Bradford in April, and later in Burnley in June (see Mohammed Shamuz Miah's account) and in Bradford again in July. The two days of violence in Oldham involved 500 people and caused around £1.4 million of damage. An official report in 2001 (The Cantle Report) on the events in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford blamed the violence on religious and cultural difference and 'self-segregation' (people choosing to live with their own communities in separate areas) amongst Britain's Asian-Muslim communities. This has become known as 'parallel lives'. However, our interviewees tell a rather different story.
There were several riots. With the help of the Pakistanis, we tried to resist the National Front. The National Front would insult us, laugh at us. They would demonstrate whenever they wanted and in any area. But we wouldn't tolerate their behaviour… They wanted to march in our areas, we prevented them… when they marched, they damaged houses on both sides of the street; they threw stones and broke windows. But the clash wasn't with the National Front people in the end; unfortunately it was with the police. When our people gathered, the police told them not to gather… They wanted our boys to leave. There was quarrelling and at one stage clashes erupted. Our boys also set fire to a police vehicle. But the way the media spread the news – it didn't happen on that scale. The media exaggerated it.
There is a main road to the Stadium from the city… The police could have put the barricade on the side roads. This is the residential area, people live here. But they [the National Front] were allowed to go through the side streets where Bengalis live… I think this was to help the racists, to give them the chance… They don't like Bengali people, we are black to them. The media also exaggerated this incident. After that the situation was very tense. There were so many elements to ignite it. But now it is over.
It began in 2000. The real cause of the riot was, an old White man who was going along the road. Some Asian boys beat him up. They were Bengalis. The police rescued him and he was seriously injured. When he was in hospital the media took a picture of him and published it as a news story… The British Nationalist Party [BNP], took this as an opportunity. They came to demonstrate against it… On another day, there was a football game. They [the BNP] came with the team. While passing through the street they kicked the doors, broke some windows; they were shouting and making noise. Our boys and girls came out of the houses on all sides… and chased the BNP people. Then a big number of police came. The police escorted the BNP along the barricades … to the railway station. Then the Bengalis started fighting with the police. There were 2,000-3,000 Bengalis, they came with banners to protest. The police let loose dogs and arrested many people… The next day, the riots started seriously. This was in the Glodwick area. Many Whites came and stood on one side. Pakistanis and Bengalis stood on the other side. The riot started with petrol bombs. The Whites threw them and we also threw them… The fighting was intense… After about three hours police gathered… The fighting went on for many hours.
I was about to go to work. It was raining. Suddenly I saw the young people gathered and the police were in position… After the match, the football team were coming to the town centre under police escort and in this area, the police blocked our boys… One boy threw a petrol bomb, they began throwing stones. Both sides threw stones. There were a lot of Asians and the police charged them – the police charged the Asians, not the Whites. Maybe they had some understanding with the Whites. This conflict spread into Glodwick… They set fire to tyres on the road and blocked the area. News of the riot spread. Some English people came out of a pub and went into the Asian area – they broke some doors and windows and also hurt a pregnant woman. Our boys did not take it easily. It is impossible for anyone to take this easily. That night they started rioting.